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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The High Priest of Minimalism

Conductor James Bagwell interviews Philip Glass.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Toltec ruins at Tula, Mexico.
Fans of the music of composer Philip Glass should flock to Carnegie Hall tomorrow night, where James Bagwell and the Collegiate Chorale will give the New York premiere of Mr. Glass's Symphony No. 7 "Toltec." The work appears on a program of modern music that also features Oceana by Osvaldo Golijov, a work in the style and structure of a Bach cantata. Mr. Golijov is the current composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall.

The following is a brief interview between Mr. Bagwell and Mr. Glass, provided to Superconductor by the good folks at Michelle Tabnick Communications.

(No, I didn't do too much work on it, but how often do you get to run an interview with a composer like Philip Glass?)

James Bagwell: What prompted you to write this symphony?
Philip Glass: I have been visiting Mexico for many years, sometimes in the big cities but often in remote areas. On one such visit, I was given a recording of a Marakame (mara'kame), who would be a singer and story teller of the indigenous people who still live today in northern Mexico.

It was a recording of an elderly man singing words that I couldn't understand, firstly because it was an indigenous language and secondly because he had no teeth. I based the second movement of the symphony on this recording.  I imagined as best I could the actual syllables he was singing and the sounds he was making. That became the text of the second movement.

Later, I connected that piece with in the context of three elements that are important in the traditional life of the indigenous people still living in that area of Mexico: corn, the Sacred Root, and the Blue Deer.  Each is represented in the movements.

J. B.: How long did the composition process take and what prompted you to incorporate chorus into your work?
P. G.: I sang in choruses when I was still a student at Juilliard. And from those experiences and from earlier times, when I was 10 years old when I played in things like church orchestras and sang in choruses that were performing the masses of Bach and Mozart. After Juilliard I had a lot of personal experiences in singing in choruses. I drew mainly on my own experience to have my own personal approach to writing for choruses.

J. B.: The Collegiate Chorale has been performing quite a bit of your music recently, from the performance of the opera The Juniper Tree, to Koyaanisqatsi, to Another Look at Harmony, Part IV, and now the Toltec Symphony.

P. G.: I've known the chorus and conductor for a long time. They are excellent. This piece was originally written for the 60th birthday of (conductor) Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra in 2005. The Collegiate Chorale knows my music well, sing it very well, and I'm pleased that they have chosen this piece to perform in its New York premiere.

Symphony No. 7 "Toltec" has its first New York performance tomorrow night at Carnegie Hall at 7pm. Tickets are $20-$115 and available at

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats